31 August 2006

[design] Getting What You Want Out of Your Designer

Communication. Interflow. Keeping the lines open. Reading is fundamental. There are about a billion ways, so it seems, to highlight the importance of keeping in touch with people who are using one's services that it all seems trite to remind people that of all the communications protocols out there, simple human communication is perhaps the most important...and the most taken for granted.

Liz Strauss, of Successful-Blog, has distilled her POV down to an insightful list. In a post titled 10+1 Sure-fire Ways To Get My Best Work–and the Best Work from Everyone–Every Time, she offers the following list:
  1. Make the work important.
  2. Spend time to show me you mean that.
  3. Start by defining as many terms as you can.
  4. Be able to tell me what you want to write.
  5. Think about how you would approach the writing task if you had to do it.
  6. Imagine how I might go off in the wrong direction.
  7. Tell me where you want me to get creative
  8. Estimate how long you think it would take you to do the job.
  9. Ask for an early checkpoint or sample.
  10. Write a quick bulleted list of what we agreed to.
  11. And, the +1 bonus point: Give me all the information you can...don't hold back for fear of insulting my intelligence.
At this point I suggest you go to Liz's article and give it a quick read–it's actually quite succinct. Tell Liz I sent you. Then, come right back here. I'll wait.

In the prefacing remarks, Liz boils it down to one salient point: It wasn’t the work. It wasn’t the people. It was how we put the two together. This is the nut of the thing: It's how I work with you. It's what each of us knows about one another's work what I'm doing and you're wanting. It's the communication, stupid (sorry, nothing personal).

The list she made above captured my imagination but while it's well suited to writing–which a lot of people who aren't professional writers do everyday at varying levels of skill, so an injunction such as Estimate how long you think it would take you to do the job is a reasonable question–it wouldn't quite work in the design transaction.

Apt design is a trained skill. Not everyone can do this. Note that I am sincerely not saying the non-designer isn't smart enough to design. The truth I've learned, though, is that whether or not you get the skill through self-teaching or instruction, those calling themselves designers and who do it well pull together skills and perceptions that the average untrained designer just hasn't been exposed to. Design is a grammar; one has to at least learn some of it for one's designs to work.

It's about pulling the client into the process

The way Liz's concept works in the designer-client interplay could more be thought of pulling the client into the design process. Design is an evolution, and when a client hands a job over to a designer they may feel as though they're sending thier baby off to school, and have no hand in it until such time as they get it back.

The process can be improved by giving the client some active hand. Naturally, the designer will still be doing the designing, but I think of the client's influence as a guidon. Remember, the creativity comes with not coming up with your own vision of what the client wants, but translating that vision into a practical reality. The client wants to boat down the design river, but you're the pilot; the client wants something, and you'll be steering the client's wants away from the impractical.

But the client can take the ride with you. An ideal end to this would be an enlightened and satisfied customer, and a triumphant designer.

The List–My Version

Liz's list is a great one and very insightful, as I've said. It is, however, as I now see it, a slightly ill fit for the designer-client relationship. Here's my list:
  1. Let Me Know Why You Came To Me. I already assume that your work is important;
    Don't let me forget that the reason you're querying me is because you think I'm up
    to doing your job and doing it well.
  2. Take Time to Tell Me Exactly What You Want. I want to give you what you want
    me to give you, but I can't read your mind. Since you aren't a designer, you may feel
    that just a few words will suggest to me what you want; this is where misunderstandings start. Let's avoid those, and use whatever words you feel are necessary to explain it as clearly as you want to. Don't assume that I'll not respect you if you don't speak the lingo; I'm on board with you and will automatically give you all due respect.
  3. Let's agree on terms from the start. Go ahead and tell me what you expect from me during the process. Be blunt if you feel you must; I won't be offended unless you're trying to be obnoxious. Do you expect constant updates on progress? Do you have any questions on what I'm going to charge you? Do you want to make a list of checkpoints, either formal or informal? Let's get all your concerns on the table where we can discuss them.
  4. Let's Settle on a Timetable. I can work either with or without a timetable; I'm adaptable. If you want a timetable, though, let's hash that out in the very beginning. I'll say what's possible; you say what you're hoping for. Together we'll negotiate that to something we can both live with.
  5. Let's Agree to Disagree. After we dice out the terms it may prove that we, as client and designer, might not be the best match. We should have the mutual courage and respect to admit to each other that we have differences or, if the differences be large enough, conclude our relationship before too much investment happens.
  6. Let's Make Each Other Accessable. I check my email sometimes several times a day. Give me a way to reach you with reasonable speed. I promise to respond to you directly to any question; please respond to me as quickly as you can if I send you a query or a proof.
  7. Don't Be Afraid To Ask Me How I'm Doing. This one should explain itself. Any question? I am at your service–shoot!
  8. Don't Ever Hold Back For Fear Of Insulting Me. As Liz says: You’d be surprised how often it happens that intelligent folks hesitate to give other folks information about work for fear of insulting a person’s intelligence. Not knowing is not the same as not being intelligent. Please tell me so that I can do well for you.
This is the first attempt at a philosophy along those lines; I'm expecting to evolve this as time moves forward.

If it is a big ball of "oh my gosh", though, just remember, it all boils down to communication: you tell me what you want, I tell you want I can do for you, and in the end, we come to common ground.

Talk to me.

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